Advertisements on Coaster cars generate revenue — and complaints.
  • Advertisements on Coaster cars generate revenue — and complaints.
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Benjamin Tobias has ridden mass transit in major cities all over the world. In most of those places — London, Paris, New York — commuting in an urban area means riding underground in a dark, dank, and noisy subway car.

But the Coaster, he says, “is nothing like that. The cars are clean, the other people riding are all professionals coming in to their jobs, and you’ve got these spectacular views the whole way. Every morning, I get to see the ocean, see the weather coming in, and see the horizon, and that whole experience is so uniquely San Diego.”

Recently, however, North County Transit District began a program that interferes with Tobias’s experience. In December 2011, they rolled out a program that offers exterior train wraps to advertisers. These wraps cover train cars in directionally transparent vinyl sheets that are perforated with tiny holes, which allows advertisers to cover windows while maintaining visibility from the inside.

Tobias scoffs at the level of visibility that remains. His view, he says, has been obscured.

“If there were an asteroid out there, you’d see it,” he says, “but it’s like looking through a chain-link fence. It takes away from the whole aesthetic.”

Tobias, a research scientist at General Atomics, rides the Coaster eight times a week, commuting between the Carlsbad Village and Sorrento Valley stops. Today, during his afternoon commute, he walks me through the train cars, pointing out the beauty he brags about to his friends who live in other places.

“In the summertime, every single day you’ll see dolphins off the coast here. Right in this stretch of Del Mar is where they come and feed during the day,” he says. And then, gesturing out the east-facing window, “And this whole valley is full of deer in the evening.”

Coaster rider Benjamin Tobias supported the advertising until he saw how much the “wraps” obscured the view from inside.

He opens a door that leads to the next car, and we step through it. He chooses a seat next to the window that looks out on the coast and sits down. The window is covered in what, from a distance, looks like a tint. Not too dark to see out, but not quite as bright and clear as the windows in the car we’ve just left. Up close, the tint becomes tiny holes.

“It’s almost like one of those tests for epilepsy,” Tobias says, smiling. “You’ve got things moving in the background and a stationary grid in the foreground. I imagine if you were the right person you could get seizures.”

Two weeks ago, when he first noticed the wraps going up on the train cars, Tobias thought it was a good idea and wondered why they hadn’t thought of it before. But then the following Monday, when he realized that the advertisements affected his view of the Pacific, he became irritated and sent a complaint to the North County Transit District.

“There are lots more important things I could be complaining about,” he says. “But I get sensitive about people interfering with the aesthetic of my daily experience.”

Alex Wiggins, communications director at North County Transit District, has three things to say in response to Tobias’s complaint.

One: “The obstruction is relatively minor. It’s the equivalent of looking out of a tinted window compared to a nontinted window.”

Two: “We operate 26 trains a day between Oceanside and San Diego. Each of those trains consists of about five cars. At maximum, as the program grows, we’ll probably have two wraps per train set, so that leaves ample opportunity for someone who doesn’t care for the view to move to a different car.”

Three: “It’s a fantastic revenue stream, so we’re looking forward to actually expanding the program.”

Another Carlsbad resident, Claire Toomay, reads a book in a seat by the west-facing windows in one of the cars covered with an advert for Wells Fargo. Toomay says the window coverings don’t affect her experience in a negative way. Not from inside the train, at least.

“In fact, it can be really bright to sit by these windows, so it is nice to have some shade,” she says. “But one thing I would say is that we’re so inundated with advertisements out in the world. More advertising isn’t always the best thing.”

But Tobias says the commercialization is not his beef at all.

“You have to pay for your public services,” he says. “I’d rather they let Scripps and Wells Fargo pay for them than take it out of my property taxes. Really honestly, I would. I’m more than happy to see them use the space for advertising.”

Just not on the windows.

Gary Krajci of Oceanside agrees with Toomay but for a different reason.

“[On the outside] it just doesn’t look uniform,” he says. “I’m a military type of guy. I like things to look fairly natural, if not fairly uniform.”

Krajci, who’s also annoyed by the animated billboards he’s seen popping up along the freeways, prefers the blue and white of the way the train cars are painted without the advertisements.

“This train that’s going along the ocean, the way it was painted before was perfect. It kind of blended in,” he says. “But if you start getting all sorts of wild signs and painting train cars, it looks like Barnum and Bailey going through town.”

According to Wiggins, in the 12 months of 2011, the Coaster carried 1,547,312 passengers, an increase from the 1.4 million of previous years. This increase in riders, Wiggins claims, is the result of a fare decrease. And though the exact cost of the adverts is proprietary information, he says, “We can collect up to several hundred thousand dollars for six months’ to a year’s worth of advertising for a single train. So it’s a lot of revenue.”

Krajci, like Tobias, understands that the presence of these advertisements on the Coaster has the financial upside of keeping his costs low. However, the garishness still bothers him.

“I’m not an arts-and-craftsy type of person, but it just doesn’t sit right with me,” Krajci says. “It doesn’t bother me to death, but if I could make it go away, I’d make it go away.”

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Jay Allen Sanford Feb. 22, 2012 @ 9:54 p.m.

Elizabeth Salaam has been turning in consistently strong reports like this one, covering topics almost untouched elsewhere. Her work bridges the "stringer" citizen journalist entries covering neighborhood news and the "hard" news reporting of longtime Reader staffers like Matt Potter and Ernie Grimm.

It takes a nose for news to spot a story in garish train advertising, and a reporter's drive to strike up conversations with strangers on a train, in order to get "the people's voice" and POV into print. Very commendable -


Twister Feb. 25, 2012 @ 8:21 p.m.

Sounds like maybe she should be on the payroll.

I used to write occasional pieces for newspapers, but since the advent of the Internet, the competition has been too voluminous. Hell, if I'm gonna GIVE my stuff away, I'll do it on the Reader, where your name doesn't count and if it's any good it'll get passed around. Good thing I've got SS.


Elizabeth Salaam Feb. 24, 2012 @ 10:31 a.m.

Thank you for these kind words, Jay Allen!


Arborigine Feb. 26, 2012 @ 10 a.m.

I would simply refuse to ride in a car with the ads, and suggest the same to other riders. I remember a Police statement that one of problems during the "McDonalds Massacre" of 1984 was that due to heavy advertising on the windows, snipers could not get a shot at Huberty, so he kept killing people. I will not go into a restaurant that has ads that obscure my view of the outside primarily because i like to see what is going on around me. These ads, and those on the train are a sneaky way to avoid the rules of the local sign commission, a hazard to public safety, and annoying. I vote with my feet.


emregan Feb. 26, 2012 @ 8:44 p.m.

Thank you, Elizabeth Salaam and Benjamin Tobias, for bringing attention the Coaster wrap issue.

As I recently advised NCTD: Not only do the wraps covering the windows turn the formerly enjoyable view from the Coaster cars (a huge advantage - hence a selling point - to riding the Coaster) into more of an annoyance, it makes it difficult to see inside the Coaster cars, especially during the day. As a regular rider of the Coaster, I do not like the idea of NCTD doing anything that makes it difficult for people on the outside to see inside the car. Due to the annoyance factor, I have no desire to do business with Wells Fargo Bank or UCSD Health (I doubt this is the result they are hoping to achieve).

I would like to address a comment in the article by Alex Wiggins, Communications Director of NCTD. He says "the obstruction is relatively minor..looking out of a tinted window compared to a nontinted window". I wish I could post the sunset photos I took, one from a wrapped car and one from a "clean" car so everyone could see that the difference between these two views extends way beyond a "tint". Mr. Tobias said it is like looking through a chain link fence but I would liken it more to looking through a black honeycomb - the weave is that tight.

While I understand the motivations behind the advertising (additional exposure for WFB and UCSD / income for NCTC), this advertising method is having the opposite effect on riders. There has got to be a better way! Perhaps a redesign of the wrap to allow for uncovered windows would be a way to meet the needs of all: WFB & UCSD would still get the benefits of additional exposure, NCTD would still receive the advertising income and the riders will not be annoyed! It can be done. Take a look at the Trolley cars - some of them are wrapped but the windows are left clear.

I, as well as many other Coaster riders look forward to the day when the wraps are redesigned so the ability to enjoy the views and the safety of the riders will be restored.


Visduh Feb. 29, 2012 @ 9:39 a.m.

As an aside, why is a state-supported and ostensibly non-profit operation like the UCSD medical center advertising? UCSD runs what was once the county hospital because it needs a teaching facility for its medical school and allied educational efforts. While most of us assume that ad campaigns are effective for the advertisers, it is not true that all such efforts are effective, and it is true that some campaigns backfire. If those who do not like what they see in this case were to write scathing letters to W-F and UCSD Healthcare, they might see that those wrap campaigns are not repeated. But your wheel needs to squeak and fairly loudly at that.


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